When it comes to antioxidants, orange could be the new red!

Scientists say a special variety of orange tomatoes may be healthier than the usual bright red ones.

A team at Ohio State University grew special orange tomatoes which contain a type of lycopene that is apparently more readily used by the body than the type found in red tomatoes.

Lycopene belongs to a family of antioxidants called the carotenoids, which give certain fruits and vegetables their distinctive colours.

Carotenoids are thought to have a number of health benefits, such as reducing the risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration.

Steven Schwartz, the study's lead author and a professor of food science and technology and his colleagues fed 12 adult volunteers one of two spaghetti meals on separate occasions; one meal contained the sauce from the orange tomatoes and the other the sauce from red tomatoes.

The volunteers were asked to avoid eating tomatoes or food made with them for 13 days before the test meals.

The researchers took blood samples from each subject directly before the spaghetti meals and every hour or two up to 10 hours after the meals, which were analyzed for lycopene content.

The blood test results showed that lycopene absorption from the orange tomato sauce was 2.5 times higher than that absorbed from the red tomato sauce.

The blood lycopene levels spiked about 5 hours after the orange tomato sauce meal and the levels were seen to be as much as 200 times higher than those seen after the red tomato sauce meal.

Dr. Schwartz says though red tomatoes contain far more lycopene than orange tomatoes, most of it is in a form that the body doesn't absorb well.

He says even though those who ate the orange tomato sauce consumed less lycopene, they absorbed far more than they would have from the red tomato sauce.

Orange tomatoes are not readily available at grocery stores and those in the study were grown at an Ohio State-affiliated agricultural research center.

Schwartz and colleagues suggest consumers may wish to try orange or gold-colored 'heirloom' tomatoes as an alternative although they have not been scientifically tested for levels of lycopene.

The study is published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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